The goal, though he never uttered it publicly, was easy to see by Ezekiel Elliott’s actions.
He arrived in training camp shredded with a well-defined set of abs, and he immediately filled the leadership void created by Jason Witten’s retirement and Dez Bryant’s release.
All of that was designed to make folks - fans, media, whomever - group him once again with the NFL’s best running backs and to make sure the Cowboys won the NFC East and returned to the playoffs again.
He’s already re-claimed his spot as one of the NFL’s best running backs - and that was before he earned his second Pro Bowl berth on Tuesday. And if the Cowboys beat Tampa Bay on Sunday to win the NFC East and secure a playoff spot, it’ll probably be because Elliott was one of the best players on the field.
During the Cowboys’ five-game winning streak that put them on the verge of making the playoffs, Elliott averaged 24 carries for 116.4 yards per game. Four times, he gained more than 100 yards.
He also caught 36 passes for 276 yards, while scoring a total of five touchdowns.
“It's nice to get in the Pro Bowl,” Elliott said, “but we're chasing goals a lot loftier than the Pro Bowl. It's an honor for my peers and the coaches and the fans to honor me as one of the best backs in the league, but we're definitely chasing a Super Bowl not a Pro Bowl.”
The third-year running back leads the NFL in yards (1,389) and carries (286). He leads Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams by 98 yards for the rushing title, and he has a knee injury that could force him to miss one or both of the Rams’ last two games as they prepare for the playoffs.
If Elliott wins the rushing title, he’ll join Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as runners who won the title at least twice in their first three seasons.
“That would be a pretty cool thing to get. I tell people that all the time,” said Elliott, “It's like, you play for team goals, but who wouldn't want to be the NFL sack leader? Who wouldn't want to be the NFL passing or rushing leader?
“I would say that’s important to me. Yeah, it would be cool, but I want to go out here and win ballgames. I want to make a run deep into the playoffs. I want to have an opportunity to compete for a Super Bowl, so I mean, I’m just going to keep working and whatever happens, happens.”
Now, it could get a little tricky, if the Cowboys beat Tampa Bay and can’t improve their playoff seed.
Then, it would surprise no one if Garrett rested some starters with nagging injuries such as Tyron Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence to ensure they’re in optimal shape when the playoffs start.
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It would also make sense to give Elliott a game off like the Cowboys did in 2016 just to make sure he’s rested and ready to go for the post-season.
“Any time you lead the league in any category, I think that's a challenging thing to do," Garrett said. "There are a lot of really good players out there, really good teams out there.
"He's obviously been a big part of what we have done here on offense since we drafted him. He's just a heck of a good football player. We like to hand him the ball, we like to throw him the ball, he's a really good route runner, he's a really good protector, he's complete, he loves the game, he plays the game the right way.
"Those are the things we get focused on more than any kind of number or milestone."
Since he’s been in the league, when the Cowboys’ offense flows through Elliott, the Cowboys typically win.
Dallas is 22-6, when he carries the ball at least 20 times. They 10-1, when he has at least 25 carries and 2-0 when he carries it 30 times.
That’s because when the Cowboys give it to Elliott that much, it means they’re dictating the game’s tempo. They’re bullying the opposing defense and keeping their opponents’ offense off the field.
This year, Elliott has also caught a team-high 72 passes, which is why he’s on pace for 410 touches, which would be the sixth-highest total in franchise history.
DeMarco Murray had a franchise-best 449 touches in 2014, when he gained a franchise-record 1,845 yards, and Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, holds the other four highest totals.
Elliott has now played in 40 NFL games (including playoffs). He has 872 carries for 4,088 yards and 28 touchdowns. Elliott has also caught 131 passes for 1,173 yards and six touchdowns.
In Smith's first 40 games (including playoffs), he carried the ball 788 time for 3,266 yards and 30 touchdowns, while catching 91 passes for 596 yards and a touchdown.
So Elliott was asked, are you the NFL’s best running back, "I’ve done a great job just making my case for that, but we got, hopefully, a lot of ball left and a lot bigger goals than that."